Learning is a Spiritual Endeavor
February 12, 2019
Brother Brian K. Ashton
Sunday School General Presidency
Brian K. Ashton was completing his service as president of the Texas Houston South Mission, where he was serving with his wife, Melinda Earl Ashton since July of 2012, when he was called as the second counselor in the Sunday School general presidency. The Ashtons are the parents of seven children.
Brother Ashton received a bachelor’s of arts degree from Brigham Young University and a master of business administration degree from Harvard University. He has worked as a business manager, as an executive, and as a board member at various companies since 1998. He is currently employed as the vice president of BYU-Pathway Worldwide.
Please respond to the questions below on the devotional discussion board:
When have you struggled to learn a concept? What did you do to fight through that struggle and how did you involve God?
Brothers and sisters, I am grateful to be with you. BYU-Idaho is a special place. You can feel it as soon as you arrive on campus. There is a wonderful level of consecration here. You also have excellent, highly committed leaders and teachers, including President and Sister Eyring. As a result, the Spirit of the Lord is here in rich abundance. Thank you for exercising faith in Jesus Christ and for striving to obey His commandments. Your faith, consecration, and obedience create a powerful learning environment.
Today, I will talk about how to learn most successfully. I’ve entitled my talk “Learning is a Spiritual Endeavor.”
I want to begin with a couple of stories.
When I was about nine or ten years old, my parents decided that I was going to take piano lessons. I had already tried to learn how to play the violin, and it was clear that I did not have a talent for it. In fact, many years later, one of my grandmas told me that one of the happiest days of her life was when I quit taking violin lessons. I don’t have a great ear for music, so it can be hard for me to stay in tune, and since I don’t have any rhythm, I struggle to follow a beat. Naturally, I wasn’t thrilled about taking piano lessons.
Practicing the piano was drudgery. I wasn’t efficient when I practiced, and as I recall, I let most people know how unhappy I was that I had to play the piano. At some point during the years that I took piano lessons, I read a biography about John Philip Sousa, the great American composer and band leader from the early twentieth century. This got me motivated to practice for a few weeks, but it didn’t last. Finally, after two and a half years of misery, my piano teacher told my mom that she should let me quit, and so I did. That was another happy day, even more for me than for grandma.
Now contrast this with my second story. My first year of university studies I tried taking Mandarin Chinese. I wanted to learn Mandarin because I figured that knowing Mandarin would be very useful in whatever career I chose. Unfortunately, even though I was giving it my best effort and wanted to learn Chinese, I really struggled in the class. Eventually my professor sent me for some testing to see why it was so difficult for me. The testing revealed that I couldn’t hear certain tones or accents (I’ve since wondered if this had something to do with my lack of natural talent with music). This is a real problem for learning Mandarin Chinese since in Mandarin words have different tones that give them completely different meanings. For example, the word ma, spelled m-a in its anglicized form, with a different tone or accent can mean “horse,” “to scold,” “numb,” “mom,” or it could indicate that one is asking a question. With these results, the university allowed me to take the class on a pass/fail basis. Fortunately, the professor wouldn’t give anyone less than a fifty-percent grade on the final exam. With that fifty percent, I passed the class with the equivalent of a D minus. Thankfully, it showed on my transcript as a “pass.”
At the end of my first year of university studies, I sent in my papers to go on a mission. When I was asked in the missionary application what my interest level was in learning a language, I put “low.” However, when I received my call, I had been assigned to Peru to preach the gospel in the Spanish language. I was a little worried about trying again to learn a language, but I chose to believe that since the Lord had called me, He would also help me learn Spanish.
Before I entered the Missionary Training Center in Provo, my stake president blessed me that I would be able to learn Spanish. I’d like to tell you that it was easy after that. It wasn’t. I was by far the worst Spanish student in my MTC district. But I tried hard. I even played Spanish tapes at night so that I could get used to hearing the language. When I finally got to Peru, I think I could only say “¿Dónde está el baño?” and “Tengo hambre.” My Peruvian trainer actually learned a little bit of English just so that he could communicate with me.
Eventually, I did learn Spanish. It took a long time. The most effective thing that I did was read the Book of Mormon out loud in Spanish while following along in my English scriptures. But today, I speak Spanish fairly well. I can express myself in nearly every situation and on most topics, and people understand me. In fact, once or twice a year, when on assignment, I do a broadcast to tens of thousands of Spanish-speaking members of the Church. What’s more, I can now largely hear accents. In fact, several years ago, I was in France attending church. As I listened to a non-native speaker give his talk, I turned to the French woman who was translating for me and said, “He has a really heavy accent doesn’t he?” She looked at me with a quizzical look on her face and said, “His accent is terrible. I can barely understand him. But it is unusual for a non-French speaker to be able to hear that.”
Now there are some important similarities between these two experiences. One: in each case I had had a bad experience that gave me reason to doubt that I could succeed at playing the piano or learning Spanish. Two: I was not naturally talented at either music or foreign languages. And three, I struggled mightily with both endeavors. Yet, I failed at learning to play the piano, while I succeeded quite well at learning Spanish—even if it took a while. What was the difference?
To answer that question, I want to discuss four principles from the scriptures and the words of the prophets.
The first principle is that all truth is made understandable to us by the Light of Christ and the Holy Ghost. President Brigham Young taught:
This is a question which I would like the scientific and philosophic world to answer, Where do you get your knowledge from? I can answer the question; they get it from that Supreme Being, a portion of whose intelligence is in each and every one. They have it not independently; it was not there until put there. . . . It was taught you by the influence of the spirit that is in man, and the inspiration of God giveth it understanding (Job 32:8).
More recently, Elder David A. Bednar has added, “The Holy Ghost is . . . the teacher and witness of all truth.”
The scriptures verify that it is the Spirit that teaches us truth. The Savior taught that the Holy Ghost “shall teach you all things.” Doctrine and Covenants 50:14 teaches that “the Comforter . . . was sent forth to teach the truth.” Moroni 10:5 adds that “by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.”
Furthermore, according to Doctrine and Covenants 84:45, “Truth is light, and whatsoever is light is Spirit, even the Spirit of Jesus Christ.” In other words, truth is not only revealed or made understandable to us by the Spirit, but it also proceeds forth from Jesus Christ through the Light of Christ.
The second principle is that in order to learn truth, we must obey the specific laws that allow us to understand that principle of truth. The Lord taught that “when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.” There are laws upon which learning every truth and doing every good thing are predicated. If we are to learn truth and to do good things, we must obey those laws. This is true for all people—whether you are a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or not. That means that when you learned how to do long division, you first obeyed the laws that allowed the Spirit to help you understand how to do it. For example, the laws associated with learning long division include at a minimum (1) having the process of long division explained to you, (2) pondering the explanation, and (3) applying what you have been taught through practice. A similar process of obeying laws occurred when the Spirit helped you come to know that Jesus is the Christ or that President Russell M. Nelson is the Lord’s prophet on the earth today.
In addition, the scriptures also teach that as we keep every commandment, not just the laws associated with learning a given principle, we will have additional help to gain truth and light. The Doctrine and Covenants teaches, “He that keepeth [God’s] commandments receiveth truth and light, until he is glorified in truth and knoweth all things.”
Now, there is a corollary to this principle. It is that Satan can take light and truth from us through disobedience or false traditions. Thus, while the Spirit makes truth understandable to us when we obey the principle upon which that blessing is predicated, disobedience to those same principles and to other commandments can keep us from having the assistance of the Spirit in our lives, slow down the learning process, and result in confusion and loss of light and truth. In fact, President Brigham Young taught, “If persons neglect to obey the law of God and to walk humbly before Him, darkness will come into their minds and they will be left to believe that which is false and erroneous.”
The third principle is that the Holy Ghost and the Light of Christ can quicken our understanding and our capacity. Isaiah 11:2-3 in describing the Savior says, “And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord; And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord.” Speaking of the Light of Christ, Doctrine and Covenants 88 teaches, “And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings; Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God.” Consequently, as we do things that bring the Holy Ghost into our lives or increase our receptiveness to the Light of Christ, our capacity and ability to learn is enhanced. These things can include praying for help, feasting upon the scriptures, repenting, serving others, etc. The other corollary to this principle is that the more pure we are, the more easily the Spirit can reveal truth unto us.
The fourth principle is that if we exercise faith in Christ, we will “have power to do whatsoever thing is expedient in” Him. As it relates to learning, I take this to mean that when it is expedient in Christ, we can do the following:
- Overcome or work around challenges.
- Develop talents that don’t come naturally to us.
- Persist in doing the things that allow us to learn even when it is very difficult.
This does not mean we will always get As in our classes, but even when something is difficult, if it is expedient in Christ, we will be able to learn it.
With these principles in mind, let’s discuss how I was able to learn Spanish but not how to play the piano.
I made learning Spanish a spiritual endeavor. This is how:
- I began by having a desire to actually learn Spanish. As you will recall, the Lord grants unto us according to our desire. What’s more, having a desire to learn opens our hearts such that the Spirit can reveal truth to us.
- Knowing that I struggled to hear tones and accents, I asked for a priesthood blessing to help me in the learning process. This gave me access to greater faith and power.
- I did everything that I could to bring the Spirit into my life. This was made easier by the fact that I was striving to faithfully serve the Lord as a missionary. But I also did things missionaries aren’t required to do. For example, I fasted and used the Book of Mormon to help me learn Spanish.
- I did the work required to learn Spanish. In other words, I kept the commandments or laws upon which learning Spanish is predicated. Since I had trouble hearing accents, this meant that I had to do more work than many of my peers. But I had the help of the Lord and His grace to persist and maintain works that I would not have otherwise been able to maintain on my own.
- The difficulties that I had in learning Spanish caused me to be humble. Doctrine and Covenants 136 teaches that the “Spirit is sent forth . . . to enlighten the humble and contrite.” Thus my difficulties facilitated extra heavenly help because they caused me to be more humble than I would have been otherwise. Even today I recognize my reliance upon the Lord to speak Spanish well. I still pray for the gift of tongues before I have a Spanish speaking assignment.
Not surprisingly, having obeyed the laws upon which the blessing of learning Spanish was predicated, I eventually learned to speak Spanish and became reasonably good at it. In addition, by persisting in speaking Spanish, the Lord helped me at least partially overcome my inability to hear tones and accents.
On the other hand, I made learning to play the piano a distinctly non-spiritual endeavor:
- I didn’t want to learn to play the piano. As a result, I received the desire of my heart—I didn’t ever really learn how to play the piano beyond the very basics. What’s more, my heart wasn’t open to receiving divine help.
- Not once did I ask for the Lord’s help to learn to play.
- I refused to put in the effort that was required given my challenges in learning how to play the piano.
- I told myself that I couldn’t learn to play the piano.
- I made no extra effort to bring the Spirit into my life. In fact, I was contentious and angry, which drove the Spirit out of my life. Without the Spirit, when I did have a spark of desire to learn to play the piano, it was too difficult for me to persist in putting forth the required effort.
Having made learning to play the piano an almost purely non-spiritual effort, I learned very little. What little I did learn came very slowly—much slower even than Spanish. Today, I have forgotten everything that I once knew about playing the piano, except for maybe where middle C is on the keyboard. And, my lack of rhythm persists.
Knowing what I know now, however, I believe that with God’s help, I could learn to play the piano well.
So, what do you need to do to succeed in your learning endeavors?
First of all, recognize that learning is a spiritual process. This alone will change how you view your studies. You see, not only are we taught by the Spirit, but learning truth causes us to become more like our Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. They have a fullness of truth. We must also obtain this fullness if we are to become like them. Thus every truth we learn brings us closer to them.
Second, develop a desire to learn what you are studying. If you lack this desire, pray and work for it. Keeping an eternal perspective helps too. Knowing now that the experience of learning to play the piano would help me become more like my Heavenly Father, I have a greater desire to learn to play it. In fact, “Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection.”
Furthermore, recognizing that learning helps us know the laws by which we can receive blessings can also help us develop a greater desire to learn. I believe that we often miss out on blessings that could be ours simply because we are unaware of the laws we must obey to obtain those blessings. For example, for centuries society struggled with cholera, parasites, and other waterborne illnesses simply because it didn’t know about laws related to having clean water. Now that we know and in many parts of the world obey at least some of those laws related to clean water, we are blessed with better health.
As you develop your desire, your ability to learn will improve. Socrates is purported to have taken a young man who wanted to become his student into the ocean and then pushed his head under the water until he was about to die. Socrates then asked the young man what he wanted most when he was underwater? The young man replied, “I wanted to breathe.” Socrates replied, “When you want wisdom and insight as badly as you wanted to breathe, it is then you shall have it.” My mother’s experience is a good example of this. My mother studied the scriptures for years. Then tragedy struck our family—my younger brother drowned. From that time on, my mother had a desire to understand the scriptures like Socrates’s student’s desire to breathe. She told me that once she had that intensified desire her learning increased exponentially.
Third, ask for divine help. Do this daily in your prayers. Pray not just in generalities but pray specifically about individual topics or concepts that are difficult for you, including which laws you need to obey to be able to learn effectively. I’ve done this frequently. I did it to improve my pronunciation of Spanish. I do it often to understand certain concepts in the scriptures. I am still amazed at how frequently after those prayers insights come to me that increase my understanding. There may also be times when getting a priesthood blessing to help you learn may be appropriate.
Fourth, do the work required to learn. Doctrine and Covenants 88:118 identifies some of the work that we must do to learn: “Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” Other laws upon which learning is predicated are pondering and applying concepts through practice.
What’s more, as I mentioned before, I believe that at times we may have to obey additional laws or put in additional effort compared to our peers in order to learn the same thing. For example, I had to study and practice harder and longer than my missionary companions to learn Spanish because I struggled to hear accents. However, when learning takes great effort, we can rely upon Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father to give us the strength and help we need. They can also help us find the time to put in the required effort.
Unfortunately, for whatever reason we often do not pay the price required to learn. But doing so usually brings us joy. When I was a mission president, one of my missionaries came to see me because he was struggling to understand the words of Isaiah. I inquired what he was doing to study Isaiah. His reply indicated that he was essentially just reading Isaiah and hoping that enlightenment would come. When I heard his answer, it became clear that he hadn’t yet paid the price required to understand. We then talked about learning the history of the Jews, reviewing the footnotes related to the Isaiah passages in the scriptures, praying for understanding, and pondering the things he didn’t understand. He went off and did these things. A few weeks later, he reported that he could finally understand the words of Isaiah, and that they brought him great joy. I have found that with most topics, if I will do the work to understand the topic, I find it to be interesting and enjoyable.
Fifth, repent. Repentance helps us to have the Spirit to a greater degree in our lives. And as I have already mentioned, the more in tune we are with the Spirit, the more easily it can reveal truth unto us, quicken our understanding, and increase our natural capabilities.
Sixth, do things that bring an extra measure of the Spirit into your life. Start your studies with a prayer. Read your scriptures before beginning your studies. Serve others. Go to the temple. Before he was an apostle, Elder John A. Widtsoe worked for years to develop a general law related to some soil moisture studies that he had done. One day, he concluded that the task was impossible. He decided to put this work away forever and to move on to another field of inquiry. He then went home and, in order to console himself, took his wife to the temple. It was there in the temple that day that the solution came to him.
I saw this same principle work in the lives of my children when my wife and I presided over the Texas Houston South Mission. Because we were serving a mission and frequently had the missionaries in our home, we seemed to have an extra measure of the Spirit in our home as compared to before the mission. As my children experienced this extra measure of the Spirit over the three years we were in Texas, I noticed that their ability to learn increased and their grades improved. You can have the same blessing in your life.
And finally, trust that “with God all things are possible.” Don’t give up because learning something seems impossible. Don’t “take counsel from [your] fears.” Rather, move forward in faith. If you can’t see the solution to your problems now, believe that those solutions will come as you move forward if you are doing what God wants you to do.
Now let me close with two experiences. In addition to my Sunday School calling, I have the privilege of working at BYU-Pathway Worldwide. About seventy percent of the students served by BYU-Pathway Worldwide did not plan on getting a higher education before enrolling. For many of them, this was because they had struggled in school previously. Fortunately, as many of you know, BYU-Pathway Worldwide grew out of BYU-Idaho. As a result, our programs use the same learning model and have a strong connection to the curriculum on this campus. In fact, many of our certificate and degree students take BYU-Idaho online classes. These classes are infused with spiritual concepts, and students are encouraged, just as I am sure you are, to obtain the Spirit’s help to learn. As I go around the world, I meet with these students. Because their coursework is all in English, our meetings are also held in English. That’s pretty remarkable when you are sitting in Recife, Brazil, or Quito, Ecuador. In these meetings, I always ask something like, “What have you learned in your studies?” In nearly every case, the students reply first with, “I need the Spirit to help me learn.” And the Spirit has helped them to learn English, writing, math, reasoning, and even how to manage their time. It can do the same for you if you will apply the principles we have discussed.
I have likewise had the privilege to observe the Church’s literacy programs in Africa. For someone who speaks an unwritten tribal language, learning English is particularly hard. In fact, the problem has baffled experts for years. But what I learned in my travels is that when students make learning English a spiritual endeavor, they are much more likely to be successful. Hearing these wonderful children of God bear testimony of how the Spirit helped them learn to speak and read English has been one of the great spiritual experiences of my life.
Now, brothers and sisters, I bear testimony that Jesus Christ is the source of all truth. He can help you to learn all that is expedient for you to know and do by pouring out His Spirit upon you. What’s more, as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you have the gift of the Holy Ghost. As you foster this gift in your lives, your learning can be more effective and you can become more like your Father in Heaven and His Son, Jesus Christ. I so testify in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
 “The Source of Intelligence, Etc.,” May 29, 1870 in Journal of Discourses, 13:170.
 “Seek Ye Learning by Faith,” Ensign, September 2007, 00-00.
 John 14:26.
 See also Alma 18:35; Doctrine and Covenants 6:15; 93:28; 121:26.
 See also Doctrine and Covenants 88:6.
 Doctrine and Covenants 130:21.
 Many of us would consider this to be a temporal process. However, to God all things are spiritual (see D&C 29:34). The process described here is an application of D&C 130:21.
 Doctrine and Covenants 93:28; emphasis added. See also Doctrine and Covenants 50:24.
 See Doctrine and Covenants 93:39.
 See Doctrine and Covenants 130:21.
 See 2 Nephi 28:30.
 “Latter-Day Families—Preaching the Gospel—Building Up the Kingdom,” January 2, 1870 in Journal of Discourses, 13:87.
 Emphasis added.
 Doctrine and Covenants 88:11-12; emphasis added.
 Moroni 7:33.
 See Ether 12:26-27.
 See Alma 29:4.
 See Alma 32:27-28.
 See Bible Dictionary entry for “Grace.”
 Doctrine and Covenants 136:33.
 See 2 Nephi 9:20; Doctrine & Covenants 93:26.
 Doctrine and Covenants 130:18.
 See Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, Socrates at www.chickensoup.com/book-story/38799/socrates.
 Doctrine and Covenants 109:7 uses the exact same wording.
 John A. Widtsoe, In a Sunlit Land: The Autobiography of John A. Widtsoe. Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1952, 177.
 Matthew 19:26; Mark 10:27.
 James E. Faust, “Be Not Afraid,” Ensign, October 2002, 6.